Humboldt bus crash survivor Kaleb Dahlgren hopes to honor teammates by returning to the ice

Kaleb Dahlgren, who is still recovering from his own devastating injuries, hopes to honor his Humboldt Broncos teammates who died by returning to the ice. Emily Kaplan

SASKATOON, Saskatchewan -- Friday, April 6, began like any other game day for Kaleb Dahlgren. He ordered an omelet and oatmeal at Johnny's Bistro, the tile-lined diner owned by his billet mother, Carla Clement. He went home to nap, showered and quickly threw his gear into a duffel bag. He met his Humboldt Broncos teammates at Elgar Petersen Arena, the Saskatchewan Junior Hockey League team's home rink, and parked his car in the lot. As he boarded the bus for a two-hour drive north to Nipawin, where the Broncos had a playoff game against their longtime rivals, the Hawks, Dahlgren paused to chat with the bus driver, Glen Doerksen. They shared a laugh about Doerksen's previous trip with what he called "a fun group of guys."

Dahlgren took his usual seat -- fourth row from the back, on the drivers' side -- along with the rest of the team's 20-year-olds. Per tradition, the 19-year-olds occupied the rows in the middle, and the 18-year-olds were up front. Dahlgren unpacked his pregame meal: a chicken, bacon and ranch wrap. As the bus rolled along the two-lane road through the northern Saskatchewan prairie, the players chirped at each other. Dahlgren knew that teammate Nick Shumlanski's house was somewhere along the highway, so he asked him to point it out when they passed. "Nobody cares!" teammate Parker Tobin shouted, which made everyone on the bus howl with laughter. "I do," Dahlgren protested, which triggered an even louder round of laughs. About 45 minutes into the trip, Dahlgren changed into his suit so he could get in the zone for the playoff game -- a must-win for the Broncos, who were down 3-1 in their semifinal series against Nipawin after losing a heartbreaker in triple overtime at home less than 24 hours earlier. He put on his headphones, queued up a playlist of mostly hip-hop songs and looked out the window.

After that, he remembers nothing.

Four days later, Dahlgren awoke in a hospital in Saskatoon to find his parents at his side. "Why am I here?" he asked. "Did I play the game? Did we win? Did I get injured in the game? Did I get checked from behind? Was it my fault?"

His father, Mark, explained that the Broncos' bus had been in an accident. A lot of people died, Mark said. Kaleb stared back at his father, stupefied. "I'm dreaming, right? This is a dream?" he asked.

"This is not a dream, kid," said his mother, Anita.

They began telling their son the names of teammates and staff members who had died. Dahlgren seemed to be processing it all. "Well, this player was sitting here, and he was over there," he said.

Two days later, he asked his parents again why he was in the hospital. They had to explain it all over again: A truck carrying peat moss had collided with the Broncos' bus on the way to the game. Sixteen people, including Darcy Haugan, the Broncos' head coach and general manager, Doerksen and 10 of Kaleb's teammates, had been killed, and 13 others, including him, were injured.

The tragedy, they said, reverberated well beyond Saskatchewan -- and even Canada. A GoFundMe account established to collect funds for the Broncos had gone viral (and eventually raised more than $15 million from more than 140,000 donors in more than 80 countries) and thousands more people joined an online movement, #SticksOutforHumboldt, putting hockey sticks outside their front doors to remember the victims and show support for Humboldt. Dahlgren still couldn't grasp the magnitude of it, so his parents encouraged him to check his phone to see for himself.

Dahlgren remained heavily medicated those first few days in the hospital. He doesn't remember meeting Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who visited the players. He doesn't remember Canadian TV legends Don Cherry or Ron McLean stopping by or then-Calgary Flames coach Glen Gulutzan or Edmonton Oilers coach Todd McLellan. "I wish I would have remembered that stuff," he said. "But I don't."

Each day, Dahlgren became a little more lucid and less agitated. When doctors could finally get him to sit still long enough for an MRI, the full extent of his injuries was revealed: a fractured skull, a puncture wound in his head, two broken vertebrae in his neck and four others in his back and a brain injury. Then came the hardest part for the Dahlgrens: accepting their new reality.

Kaleb Dahlgren was released from the hospital on April 27 and went home to Saskatoon with his parents. That he had regained enough strength to meet for an interview -- much less walk, albeit gingerly -- by May 9 was something of a miracle. His hair was still bleached blonde, the result of a bonding pact his teammates made before the playoffs, though his brown roots had grown in substantially. The only visible evidence of his injury was a shaved patch above his left forehead, revealing road rash, and the fact that when Dahlgren went in for an embrace, he had to remind the recipient: "Gentle hugs, please."

Doctors told Mark Dahlgren that only 3 to 5 percent of people recover from Kaleb's type of brain injury. But less than a week into his stay at the hospital, Kaleb had convinced doctors to let him start light workouts and physiotherapy. When he was released, his medical team was awed by his progress.

The neurosurgeons told Dahlgren that the best remedies for brain injuries are rest, fresh air and eating greens. He took the advice to heart. He attends physiotherapy three days a week. He religiously gets eight hours of sleep, plus a 90-minute nap during the day. He also has become a regular at the local juice shop, where his go-to order is an apple, celery, kale, spinach, cucumber, lime and ginger smoothie. He is working his way through a book about recovery from brain injuries, which recommends getting plenty of stimulation, so he made sudoku a habit and likes to play a puzzle game called 1010! on his phone. Dahlgren can't fly until June 6, however, which means he had to turn down half a dozen invitations to attend NHL playoff games. Everyone from the Pittsburgh Penguins to Vegas Golden Knights defenseman Brayden McNabb -- another Saskatchewan native, who insisted Dahlgren stay over for at least two games -- has reached out.

Four of Dahlgren's teammates are still in Saskatoon hospitals, while others have been released or moved to facilities closer to their homes. (Most of the players, like Dahlgren, are not from Humboldt but live there with billet families during the season.) The Saskatchewan Royal Canadian Mounted Police investigation into the crash is still ongoing. On April 19, the RCMP said that the truck driver has been cooperating with authorities, but it is unclear if he blew past a stop sign or why he was in the middle of the intersection.

The Dahlgrens say they don't need to know the cause of the accident to find closure. "If the [truck] driver was under the influence, I might be angry he chose to do that," Mark said. "But right now, I feel bad for him. I can't imagine what he's going through. I'm sure he didn't set out that morning to have a bus hit him and have all these injuries and deaths. We have a lot of support around us, but he's out there and has nothing. If he has a family, it can't be easy for his family either. I feel bad for him. I don't feel anger toward him."

The Dahlgrens are also grappling with survivor's guilt. The parents of the Humboldt Broncos players have maintained a group text, which includes everyone wishing one another goodnight.

"When we were all together, we were able to physically support each other -- give hugs, talk about their kids, our kids, all that was good," Mark said. "Now that we're apart, it's super-duper hard. For the ones who lost their kids, I feel for their pain. But having a son who survived, it's hard finding the words to help them get through it. I know they're happy and very supportive of Kaleb's recovery, but I feel like there is nothing that I can say that's going to help them. They're going through a difficult path. We're going through a portion of that path, but we've taken a bit of a fork. We're beside them, but we're not with them."

Kaleb says his biggest regret is being in the hospital during his teammates' funerals. "What will they think of me, that I couldn't be there for them?" he asked his father. But he hadn't healed enough to leave. Mark and Anita attended as many funerals as they could -- 10 of the 16 -- and each time, they wore Kaleb's Broncos jerseys.

Like most Canadian kids, Kaleb Dahlgren was drawn to hockey at a young age. An only child, he was tearing around the living room on Rollerblades by age 2, on the ice at 2½ and skating with bigger kids at 3½. Mark installed a smoke machine and lights in the family's basement. Every night, he and Kaleb would pretend they were playing in a different NHL city, come out to their own intro, sing "O Canada" and play three periods of hockey.

When Kaleb was 9, Mark took him on a tour of North Dakota's Ralph Engelstad Arena. The rest of the group began getting agitated because Kaleb asked so many questions that it was slowing down the tour. The guide told Kaleb that if he would stay silent for the rest of the tour, he would give him an extended one afterward. On the drive home, Kaleb told his father it was his dream to play hockey in college.

Kaleb, a right wing, initially played with the Notre Dame Hounds, a junior "A" team based in Wilcox, Saskatchewan (population: fewer than 400). But he wanted to be in a bigger community because volunteering was important to him, so last summer Dahlgren asked for a trade. He was born with Type 1 diabetes and wanted to start a program to work with kids who share the chronic condition. The Hounds didn't want to give Dahlgren up, but they agreed to honor his request. They got so many offers that they let Dahlgren choose his destination. He picked Humboldt because of its hockey history and because he knew players who had played there and raved about the program. Right away, Dahlgren got a call from the coach, Darcy Haugan. "Hey, we're super excited to have you," he said.

In Humboldt, Dahlgren created a program called Dahlgren's Diabeauties. Through the program, kids with diabetes attend Broncos games and participate in ceremonial faceoffs. Then their families meet with Dahlgren after the game to talk about managing life with diabetes. Dahlgren also volunteered at the elementary school on Wednesdays, tutoring kids in reading, and he ran the rec hockey program on Sundays. It wasn't until after the crash that Mark Dahlgren really understood what an impact his son had made on the Humboldt community in such a short time. In the hospital, Dahlgren told his father that the first thing he wanted to do when he got out was visit Humboldt. So they made the one-hour drive back there from Saskatoon shortly after his release. It was there that a woman at a home for the elderly told Mark that his son not only came to visit her on her birthday but also brought her flowers.

Mark also found out that Kaleb had created another program called Dahlgren's Taxi. A group of developmentally disabled people who lived at a group home loved to go to Broncos games, but Kaleb found out they were upset that the ride that took them there got to the games late and left early. So before every home game, Kaleb would pick them up at 4:45 p.m. on his way to the arena. They got to throw pucks for warm-ups and stay late -- sometimes waiting out the Dahlgren's Diabeauties meetings -- so he could drive them home.

"When we visited, I saw the community that he made there," his father said.

On the night of April 6, Mark and Anita were getting dinner on the main drag in Nipawin before the game. "And then we looked out the window and saw firetruck, firetruck, ambulance, ambulance, RCMP, RCMP pass," Mark recalled. "Holy cow, that's a lot of emergency vehicles."

A woman came up to the register in the restaurant and said that she had heard a semi had hit a bus not far away. Mark's and Anita's faces fell. "Do you know someone on the bus?" the woman asked. "Our son," said Mark, who recalled that some people in the restaurant started crying. He can't remember if he paid for the meal before racing out of the restaurant.

Mark and Anita are both nurses, so they decided to drive to the crash site. Either they would find a bunch of agitated teenagers upset that they were late to the game, or they would be able to help.

As they approached the intersection of Highway 335 and Highway 35, they saw a line of cars -- but no bus. As they pulled over into the ditch, they saw the carnage. Bags of peat moss were everywhere, shoes and shirts strewn all over the field, hockey bags emptied. They couldn't differentiate between the front and the back of the bus. As they saw bodies being pulled from the wreckage, Anita tried to see if any shoes resembled Kaleb's.

"Nobody was being put on stretchers," Mark said. "We didn't think anyone was going to make it. We thought Kaleb was dead."

They were told to go to the Nipawin rec center, then to a nearby church. They waited anxiously, for five hours, for any news. Strangers offered drinks and hot meals. The Broncos families tried to find comfort in one another.

Survivors had been taken to three local hospitals, but it was unclear who was where or who was alive. The Dahlgrens finally got a call from a local pastor.

"He said, 'Kaleb is here [at the hospital],'" Mark recalled. "Everyone started hugging us and cheering because we were going to the hospital, and they knew someone was alive. But it was hard because we were leaving them there, and they still didn't know the fate of their sons."

When they arrived at the Nipawin hospital, Anita and Mark found Kaleb sitting in an office that had been cleared out because the facility had run out of room. Their usually upbeat son was ornery -- and cold to the touch, Mark says. He and Anita found blankets to wrap him in. Soon, Kaleb was airlifted to Saskatoon.

At the next hospital, Dahlgren shared a room with teammates Derek Patter, Graysen Cameron, Ryan Straschnitzki and later Xavier Labelle.

"That helped," Kaleb said, "because we felt like a team in there."

Although his memory was foggy in those early days, Dahlgren remembers meeting Joe Sakic, Connor McDavid and Ryan O'Reilly. He loved getting a call from Arizona Coyotes star Max Domi (who also has Type 1 diabetes) as well as from St. Louis Blues center and fellow Saskatoon native Brayden Schenn. Dahlgren feels bad about accidentally dissing Flames star Johnny Gaudreau when he visited. "I was pretty drugged up, and Mark Giordano asked me who I thought was better, Connor McDavid or Johnny Gaudreau," Dahlgren said. "I guess I said McDavid ... to Johnny's face. I did not mean to chirp him. He is unreal at hockey."

Dahlgren also got a visit from Nathan, the first responder who tended to him at the crash site. "I am forever grateful for him and everyone who helped," he said, noting that the first responder told him that he was trying to help teammates to safety before more medical personnel arrived on the scene. When Dahlgren was put on a stretcher and into the ambulance, he turned to the first responder and said, "I'm a Type 1 diabetic, my name is Kaleb Dahlgren, thank you."

"He tossed me in the ambulance and said, 'I'll never forget that guy,'" Dahlgren said. "And I'll now never forget him either."

Doctors have told Dahlgren that there's a chance that one day he will regain his memory from the crash -- which terrifies him. However, part of him wants to know some of the last things he said to his teammates and what they said to him. "I think that would be really tough to remember," he said. "I think if that day comes that I would remember it, I'd take it, but if it doesn't come, that's fine too."

Now Dahlgren is focused on returning to the ice. He kept in touch with the college coaches who had been recruiting him. On May 11, he announced that he would continue his hockey career at York University in Toronto. His goal is to start college next fall, but it will depend on how quickly he recovers. The school has assured Dahlgren that he can start whenever he feels ready.

"I have big goals," he said. "I want to play hockey again. I'm going to play hockey again. I'm going to play college [hockey] and get an education."